Change in education in inevitable. Some change we come to expect because of the nature of our work–students will move on and colleagues will eventually retire. We celebrate and appreciate these kinds changes.

But what kind of sustainable systemic change can be made in education that will address teacher attirition as well as stem the constant flurry of education reform?

Each year brings change.

In education, change is always inevitable.

Some change is to be expected though. Students come, and all too soon move on. Also, dear colleagues move out of state or retire. We appreciate the milestones created by these changes.

However, there are changes that do not bear repeating. Yet, they happen too often:

  • ·        New teachers leave the profession for opportunities they believe values their talents and life experiences;
  • ·        Broad education reform that offers solutions to the current challenges faced in education.

The one change we ignore and do little to curb, and the other is a constant struggle between compliance and significant school improvement.

Seldom do we look at both problems to find a common solution.

Over 50 percent of teachers voluntarily leave the profession after only five years. The primary reasons being burnout, limited opportunities, and low pay. Add to that dilemma the fact that overall teacher attrition is at an all time high, and you can well understand that we are facing a daunting and unprecedented teacher shortage in America.

At the same time, wave after wave of sweeping reforms inundate schools in an attempt to improve teaching and learning. Studies show that educators do not object to the need for these improvements, but rather with the broad approaches, flawed expectations and unrealistic time frames associated with the reforms.

The result in both cases is that teaching and learning are not significantly improving at the rate expected after the 1983 release of A Nation at Risk that exposed the weaknesses in the American education system. The result then and now is a flurry of broad reforms designed to target the problems.

30 years later it seems clear that we need to change our approach to school reform.


The idea here is not to totally abolish state and national reform efforts. Many have the potential for meaningful change. However just as important, these efforts have changed the dialogue, and to some extent the system, that makes the following ideas all the more possible.

A different approach understands that true school reform:

This last point is key, because it serves as the condition in which the others are attained.


Why shared leadership?

Shared leadership can be defined as the distribution of specific responsibilities that value and invest in the talents of the most effective classroom teachers who then foster and work toward a culture of student achievement and professional practice that ultimately leads to school-wide improvement.

The 2012 MetLife Survey of The American Teacher: Challenges for School Leadership found that through this kind of leadership, classroom teachers exponentially increase their impact and extend their expertise to a greater number of students and colleagues. Some shared leadership frameworks may include the following pathways:

  • ·         Release time to mentor other teachers;
  • ·          Instructing larger classes with the support of a resident teacher, allowing them to reach more students;
  • ·          Distributed leadership with the principal that involves work to manage and achieve site-based needs and goals;
  • ·          Release time to work on curriculum or leadership development.

Shared Leadership in Action

At Playa del Rey Elementary School in Gilbert, Arizona, teachers are thriving at a time when so many are leaving the profession. Why? 

When asked, 1st grade teacher Melanie Volz, NBCT said,  “I am invested in my school. I know that what I do matters not only to my students but to all the students at Playa, and to my colleagues.”

 While most elementary schools have three leadership roles—a principal, assistant principal, and an instructional coach—Playa boasts many more. The roles include the traditional along with others aimed at promoting a collaborative school culture where student achievement and professional practice leads to school-wide improvement.

Eleven teachers and the principal share in the decisions made at the school. 4th grade teacher Sarah Wamsley, “We make decisions together based on the needs of our students and teachers or to determine the best answer to a problem.”

Each teacher serves in a cabinet-like position that leads some aspect of Playa’s teaching and learning goals. They each in turn oversee a team of other teachers who plan and implement their cabinet’s responsibilities. Some cabinet positions oversee the following areas: Curriculum, Mentoring, Office Management, School Improvement, Student Achievement, Student Governance, Technology, and Title I.

Rather than a top-down framework, Playa’s places the principal is in the center to distribute and support the work of each cabinet. Dr. Robyn Conrad Hansen, principal of Playa del Rey Elementary School and NAESP President-Elect adds, “When I became the principal in 2001 there was only one leadership position. I knew then that with the challenges as well as opportunities before us, I could not run this school alone.”

Real Outcomes of Shared Leadership

I believe the impact of Playa’s leadership model goes much further than what is shared in the 2012 MetLife survey. The deeper impact can be best seen in its teachers and students.

The school culture of trust, commitment and high accountability evokes a sense of ownership, investment, and pride that can be heard in the voices of Playa’s students and the bearing of their role models, their teachers.  5th grade teacher Frank Caporaletti said it best, “The attitude here begins and ends with me”.

Also, teacher leadership doesn’t develop in isolation. It develops through the distribution specific responsibilities that value and invest in talents of the most effective classroom teachers. Teachers at Playa have an opportunity to grow in ways that benefit both their school and the broader education community.

Melanie says, “I didn’t know that I was a leader—a good teacher yes, creative and able to motivate my students—but the ability to lead my peers is something I did not know. It changes, raises the expectations I have for myself.”

Over the years, Playa’s shared leadership model has resulted in a site-based approach to school improvement that gained some national attention.

This past March, Melanie presented Playa’s Distributive Leadership Project at the Teaching and Learning 2015 Conference, an annual gathering of industry leaders that seeks to highlight, support, and advance teacher leadership.

Playa was also distinguished to host a regional Leadership Lab to introduce their Project to state and local stakeholders, garner potential support for the work, and explore collaborative opportunities within the state.

Shared leadership in schools is the best approach to school reform, because invests in the talents of the most effective classroom teachers who then foster and work toward a culture of student achievement and professional practice that ultimately leads to school-wide improvement. In other words, shared leadership yields:

  • ·         High educator retention because it offers opportunities, job satisfaction, and an investment in school improvement;
  • ·         High student achievement that can be measured as well as sustained;
  • ·         Increased number of students who move on to the next level ready and prepared;
  • ·        Recursive improvement in teaching and learning that identifies and addresses the needs of their specific learning community.

What’s change got to do with it?  Everything–change is inevitable.

But change that leads to a school culture where shared leadership drives school-wide improvement is a change that can and should be duplicated.


Special Note: If you would like to usher in this kind of change at your school, discuss it with your principal. And if time permits submit your idea to Teach to Lead. Here is the link to apply:  applications are due by June 5. If your idea is accepted, your team will be invited to the Teach to Lead Summit in Washington, DC, July 22-24.

If time does not permit, still disuss it with your principal and at least three other teachers. Teacher Powered Schools offers guidance on how to build an idea into something sustainable and transformative as well.


The views expressed in this post are my own. They have not been reviewed or vetted by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

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